Video: In storytelling, Plimoth Plantation faces religious nuance head on

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PLYMOUTH – When Plimoth Plantation’s deputy executive director Richard Pickering awaited his first interview in 1984 for an acting role, he heard a group of role players in the room confess a common fear – discussing religion with the village’s visitors.

“If the staff is frightened to talk about the very subject that motivated this entire colony, that’s my place here, if I can help the museum talk about the spiritual experiences of people in the past in an accurate and respectful way,” Pickering remembers thinking.

Thirty years later, Pickering has, in many ways, fulfilled that role.  Today, he trains actors to engage thoughtfully on the Protestant reformation that spurred the Pilgrims to flee England and has more recently launched a reenactment of a Separatist worship service.

As one of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations – especially for Christian visitors curious about their religious history – Pickering said he hopes to provide a living theology textbook of sorts, a place where guests are offered interactive access to the past. 

“The purpose of representing religion at the museum is not proselytizing, it’s giving our guests access to the belief systems of people in the past,” he said.

The living history museum is currently frozen in time.  Upon entering the Plantation, visitors are immersed in life as it was in 1624, four years after the landing of the Mayflower. Approximately 200 settlers, representing a wide spectrum of Protestantism, lived in the village at that time.

Most of the settlers were Separatists, a Puritan sect that aimed to start a distinct religious community apart from the Church of England, which they regarded as corrupt.  But some villagers were members of the Church of England, and others were Puritans, who considered themselves part of the Church of England but who sought to “purify” the institution through their manner of living.

“Their whole world is defined by, ‘is there an example of this in scripture,’” Vicki Oman, the museum’s director of programs and school services, said of the Separatists. This meant, for example, that Separatist culture conducted weddings as strictly civil ceremonies.

Oman said that a common misconception among museum visitors is that all Pilgrims carried the same belief system. She noted that although many of the settlers came here seeking religious freedom, they did not always bestow the same grace to others.

“Roger Williams believed in religious freedom,” she said, but the English Puritan was expelled from the community for holding allegedly dangerous beliefs.

On weekends, guests might stumble across a museum program, where reenactors will perform a condensed version of the four-hour Sunday services the Separatists conducted centuries ago.

Each service includes the reading of the Geneva Bible – the first mass-produced English translation of the Scriptures – the singing of Psalms, prayers and a brief sermon.

”You can see people putting their own personal experience on a continuum, that they can see the transition from Lutheranism to Calvinism to the beginnings of Baptist and Quaker movements,” Pickering said, adding that tourists from certain Christian denominations can relate to the beliefs of the early settlers, while other evangelicals are “jarred” by the differences of early Calvinistic beliefs.

“You can’t change the mind of someone who’s living in the 17th century,” he said with a laugh.

During a chilled Tuesday afternoon in November, long-time role player John Kemp portrayed Separatist Edward Burcher and offered a discourse to museum guests, along with a singing of the Psalms. In the 17th century, the typical Sunday service began with the sounding of a drum, which summoned the church-goers to align themselves in rows of three according to rank.

“The governor is then able to look down the files and quickly tell if anyone is missing, when he will quickly send out searches if someone is failing in their duties,” Kemp preached, sporting a slightly British accent.

In a subsequent interview, Kemp noted that this year is the first year that the museum is experimenting with “third-person interpretation,” or an actor in modern clothes explaining the intent behind the sermon using “the modern voice.” If, for example, a female actor leads a discourse – something she cannot do in first-person to be historically accurate – she will briefly break character briefly.

“In the church program in particular, sometimes breaking character is the only way you can get people to realize what we’re trying to do is represent opinions several hundred years ago,” Kemp said. “The program works so well people forget what it is. … The interest comes from many different kinds of people, including Mormon, Hasidic Jews, those groups will come to the discourse interested to see how they worship.”

Pickering said that training for staff is ongoing and aims to help actors from a wide variety of spiritual backgrounds cast aside their personal opinions in order to embrace those of a historic figure during their shift.

“If the guest understands, ‘this is a resource for me to figure out the very beginnings of the American religious experience outside of indigenous spiritualities,’ it can be a very compelling experience,” he said.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis


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